Would You Be My Mentor?

 In Business, Duty, Faith, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, Friendship, Leadership, Millennials, People, Teaching, Vocation

While my father served as a mentor to many over his life, I asked him to share what he had looked for in a mentor when he was young. What were his criteria?

Dad continued mentoring through www.breakfastwithfred.com into his late 80’s giving great insight into the selection process of mentoring. He passed away in 2007 leaving a legacy of wisdom, integrity, strength, and insight.  

It’s important to find the right mentor. Over the years I have identified seven qualities I look for:

1. Do they have wisdom from experience? Scripture says young men are for strength, old men for wisdom. A mentor must understand the principles of life which I think are the principles of Scripture. A mentor needs depth of experience—and to have synthesized those experiences into teachable lessons. A good mentor has lived long enough to understand cause and effect. Many of us have not lived long enough to see that what looks great starting out isn’t always great later on. I’m interested in “vector decisions.” At the time of decision there’s little difference between two options but over time, their results diverge widely. It takes wisdom to see where that vector is going to go.

2. Do they feel noncompetitive toward younger people? You need a mentor who is able to relax and say, “This person is a racehorse” and I’m just the trainer now. He’s going to go to the winner’s circle. He’s the one who’s going to win the money. I’ll feel good just making a contribution to that. Mentoring is a vicarious accomplishment.

A good mentor must know when to say, “I’ve taken you as far as I can”, then turn you over to someone more skilled. That’s integrity.

3. Can they spot talent? Part of the ability to mentor is the ability to judge talent. A real mentor is looking for championship quality. In my first meeting with someone, I look for “an unscratchable itch” for excellence. If I see that, I know the person will persevere beyond the plateau of comfort.

Occasionally, I see a parent spend an awful lot of time trying to make a racehorse out of a fine mule. They’re educating him and grooming him and putting him in races that he never wins. That’s damaging. A mule is valuable but not as a racehorse. Good mentors can assess your current skills and take a good guess at your potential. A good mentor wants to contribute to accomplishment.

4. Is there chemistry between us? I want to be around a potential mentor to evaluate our chemistry. I want a mentor to be able to hear me and I want to be able to hear him. This is personal chemistry.

One way I check chemistry is to stop and say, “Please repeat to me what I just said.” Sometimes you hear the darnedest things. But if a person isn’t listening well there probably won’t be a profitable chemistry.

5. Will they take the responsibility seriously? I don’t want to spend my time with anybody who won’t take the occasion seriously. I don’t mean without humor but as something important. Does it have meaning to them? Does the relationship count? Can they feel hope? Most of the time solving a problem takes more time than we think. Is the person willing to put that time into it? To think about it between visits?

6. Are they willing and able to confront? I need to be close enough to somebody to say, “If I read the situation right, you are going toward trouble.” That’s all I owe you. I don’t need to spy on you or to stay after you. But I owe you that sincere confrontation.

The person may say, “Well you’re wrong.” If I am I’ll be delighted to find out. But if I genuinely believe someone is headed toward trouble I must confront. Some people might say, “He wouldn’t like me if I said that.” I am no friend if I will not risk the friendship for your good.

Confrontation is surgical. If you’re afraid of blood you should not be in the operating room. And if you primarily want people to like you, you’re not good at confrontation.

On the other hand, you want a mentor who will pause before the confrontation to consider: Am I fairly convinced I’m right? How much can I say to correct without immobilizing the person? How can I say it in love— “willing the ultimate good for the other”?

7. Do they ask good questions? Maxey Jarman, former chairman of Genesco used to say “A board member’s chief function is the questions he or she asks.” Management is supposed to know the answer but the director is supposed to know the question. So a mentor ought to be able to ask good questions.

I said to a woman the other night, “I wish you could see yourself like I see you. You’ve got potential in my eyes that I don’t think is in your eyes.” The natural thing for her to say is “Well what do you see?” If she doesn’t say that then I don’t answer. But I open the gate for her to explore more. I might say “Would seeing yourself this way appeal to you?” Asking the question gives her an opportunity to grow.

To a young executive, I might say “You work in the corporation. How would you look at yourself if you owned the company? Would you feel better about yourself?” If he says “Oh man I’d be scared to death” that’s important to know. But I don’t start arguing with him. The job of a mentor is to open a window – the right window. And then point to the best path.

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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  • Avatar
    Peter McNally

    Fred- Thank you for sharing this. I am thanking the Lord this morning for your Dad and the time he invested in me and so many others.

    • Fred

      Thank you, Peter, for keeping Dad inspired to be a mentor to men like yourself. You are his legacy!

  • Avatar
    Bob Shank

    And that, Fred, is the outline for the book on mentoring that we need today – in the Kingdom – but isn’t available yet. You can write it on behalf of both Freds – you and your father – who have modeled mentoring. With the two big generations – Boomers and Millennials – trying to find ways to co-exist, there’s no better basis for intergenerational transfer than a well-founded mentoring relationship. I’ll be glad to write the forward if you’ll do the chapters that follow…

    • Fred

      What an offer! I would rather reverse it though. What you suggest takes way too much effort on my part!

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    Elmer Ellis


    I appreciate your blog and read it faithfully. I share it with the people I love and those for whom I have developed great respect. This blog is written as though the young person is interviewing a mentor. My experience is just the opposite. Mentors choose those they feel worthy of their time in the beginning and depending on how the relationship progresses, a value becomes recognized by both.

    • Fred

      Dad was always doing things differently. He would decide who he wanted as a mentor and then “recruit” them. He had a few in his life and then he graduated to being a mentor himself. However, I like your system just as much. As I’ve looked around my office I’ve discovered that I did things the way Dad did. I identified a few men and then initiated a relationship with them. Of course, I did not have an organization where I had to intentionally mentor people coming up in leadership like you have had to do.

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